The world of Formula 1 is interesting; originally, one would think it is just a bunch of cars circling until one finishes first. However, once you look closely, you can see that things are different from what they appear to be and Formula 1 is one of the most data-driven sport. However, all the technological advancements and highly sensor-packed cars are not enough to make a team win a race. Combination and synchronization between data and human assets is the most important capability which explains success in the sport. What can we learn from that in a business context?
A data-driven sport
Ever wondered what goes into making such an expensive vehicle? Is it the 1600cc V6 engine that Mercedes Benz has been using since 2014 and developing year and year on? Or is it the ultralight chassis that costs around a million dollars? Maybe it is the front wing, rear wing and the DRS? Or the custom-made tyres? Well, It is all of those things and more. It is the 300 sensors that are placed carefully in the car and the tracksuit of the driver, where every half of a second is tracked in data and analyzed by data engineers and analysts to find a competitive edge. Some professionals even believe that it is not the driver who wins the race but the team’s race strategists and data engineers, and there is some truth to that.
However, what good is the data if it is available to everyone? There is, in fact, something more to the race that gives it a competitive edge.
F1 is the most data-driven sport watched by over a billion people since 2019. However, human intuition allows these teams to find the competitive edge they need to call the shots and either succumb under pressure or power through to victory! Do you wonder why? Allow me to clear the smoke. Data analysts, data engineers and team members indeed seamlessly contribute their valuable services and expertise to race drivers in taking crucial decisions within seconds. However, two notable contributors outside the racetrack are critical as they look beyond the data at hand. They listen to the voice inside, to their intuition and that, well balanced with a data-driven approach is what gives them the edge. They are weather-watchers and race strategists!
If there is something that the Formula 1 teams dread, it is the weather! It is the rains and storms. After all, it is the unknown and the only thing beyond their control that cannot be prepared ahead of time. However, it is a team effort, and the dots need to be connected. From the weathermen, race engineers, strategists to the weather watchers and the driver. All players act like critical components of a giant well-functioning machine.
The weathermen, for instance, carry a tonne of equipment from one corner of the world to another (depending on the location of the race). They try to place it in the vicinity of the track but as high as possible. For example, the Australian forecaster Ubimet sends two meteorologists to the racetrack before a race to set up the paddock and trackside weather stations. These types of equipment absorb weather data translated by Ubimet’s algorithm and provide valuable weather data to all the teams performing. However, how good is this information if it is available to everyone? Exactly! Even though it is valuable, it is not enough.
On the other hand, the race engineers start preparing a week before the race, even before the racecar has left the garage. They look at the broader picture, such as the general temperature of the days, and as they are nearing the race, they leverage the Ubimet weather data. They do put their upturned hand out of the pit gantry to check for raindrops, and even though they have all the best intentions, there is only so much they can do in this case.
And then come the weather watchers. Sometimes, teams need to rely on old ways to find the competitive edge, such as tele- broadcasting. The team engineers look out for if the spectators present in the stands during turns have opened up their umbrellas; if so, this means that the driver needs to be informed in advance to make a cautious turn. Due to the limited number of members allowed per team, each team also has a weather watcher physically present on the ground who can give live updates to the race engineers about if he/she can see rainclouds nearing the trackside or not. The race engineers leverage the information. Even though there are more sophisticated ways, many teams do not hesitate to place team members as spotters with a walkie talkie or, at best, a mobile phone spotted at a vantage point upwind.
In the end, it is up to the driver to leverage that information and make decisions based on his intuition. For example, if the wet tyres need to be changed because of the seconds lost during turns thanks to the traction or even how to turn around a wet corner.
‘Adrenaline‘ and ‘on the spot decision making‘ are just some of the words a strategist uses to explain their role as active decision-makers during a race and doing everything possible to execute the best strategy for their driver based on all the information they have.
Their job usually involves answering questions like calling pit stops, « when are they pitting in the race? how many times? What tyres are we fitting? but it stretches a long way beyond that, » says Randeep Singh, the race strategist at McLaren. Even though all the information is readily available at the pit wall, each team has an extended team of 30-40 employees sitting back at the base in mission control. Strategists work with them regularly, even during off-seasons. It is a constant effort. Each driver and the car is assigned strategists and strategy volunteers who listen to competitor team radio to understand where can they find an edge.
Race strategists usually try to fit all the puzzle pieces together between the team on the ground and the team back at the base and look at the broader angle. They are responsible for seeing things data analysts do not. Their job is to find the perfect balance of going with the information they have (which starts 18-24 weeks before the race) and making spot-on decisions based on their gut (on the date of the race).
They also simulate the race to see what results they can expect based on their information. However, nothing compares to the race day; all the preparation can be wasted if a team does not have a self-aware well-intentioned race strategist. For example, should a driver take a pit stop to change the tyres and lose a few seconds, or should he carry on? These are some of the questions answered by and decided on the spot by a race strategist. Moreover, when you have a fraction of a second to decide with all the information readily available to all the teams participating, the intuition of the race strategists makes all the difference.
This example sheds light on some interesting findings for understanding better the value creation mechanism with data:
- Data is critical but is not the main driver for success. It’s a necessary component, not using it would be detrimental, but it’s not the foundation of the advantage
- In a highly data-driven environment, data no longer makes the difference, it’s more the combination of data and human assets
Sometimes the most valuable data is not costly, nor difficult to get nor in big volume (think about looking at the umbrellas)
It also gives some practical insights on useful questions in a business context:
- who are the weather watchers and race strategists in the organisation, i.e. the individuals which would provide a competitive advantage thanks to their decisions
- how to synchronize the data ressources with these individuals to equip them with the best information
- which are the « umbrellas », i.e. the accessible and small data that can improve the quality of the insights gathered by analytics